Issues and Prospects for the National Archives

William J. Maher, September 1999

Editor's Note: These remarks on John Carlin's speech reflect the author's general observations as an archivist who has worked for more than 20 years outside of the National Archives. Although the author has held leadership positions in the Society of American Archivists and the Midwest Archives Conference, he would like to clarify that the views expressed are his own and may or may not coincide with any positions of those organizations.

It is not possible to relate the archival profession's perspective on the National Archives without first considering a bit of history. When the National Archives was established in 1934, the American archival profession was in its infancy, without a professional organization, a scholarly journal, a publications program, an educational structure, or a means for internal professional communication. The establishment of the National Archives was the impetus for the 1937 founding of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the organization that has become the predominant identifying icon of the profession.1

For the next two decades, the National Archives shaped and dominated the profession. National Archives staff served in key leadership roles in the SAA, creating much of the professional literature and researching fundamental professional questions concerning appraisal, preservation standards, and guidelines for arrangement and description. By the 1950s, the National Archives' Modern Archives Institute and its records management workshops became the primary training ground for archivists throughout the United States. Many who came to lead the archival profession and the SAA in the late 1960s and 1970s began their careers through the National Archives, even if they worked entirely in institutions far from Pennsylvania Avenue or presidential libraries. At the same time, and from the same roots as the National Archives, there was a significant expansion and professionalization of state archives. Thus, in the 1950s and 1960s, we saw the ascendancy of state archivists in the profession and the SAA. The 1960s witnessed a sea change with great expansion in college and university archives, special collections repositories, and the development of academically oriented records programs in state, local, and private historical societies. Further, these programs frequently generated their own recruits to the profession through apprenticeships and cooperative arrangements with suddenly expanding archival education programs based in history departments and library schools.

The 1970s saw the growing predominance of the extra-National Archives archivists, educational programs, and professional associations, especially the creation of several regional organizations and the opening of a permanent office for the SAA. The most fundamental result was the fact that the hallmarks of being a professional could be secured, if not defined, outside of work at the National Archives. Meanwhile, for reasons too complex to develop here, the National Archives seemed to lose much of its internal effectiveness. The controversy surrounding the Nixon Papers became a further signal that the placement of the archives within the General Services Administration (GSA) was as philosophically inappropriate as it was budgetarily inadequate. Through the direction and interest of a number of SAA leaders, especially SAA's first executive director, Ann Morgan Campbell, the archival profession joined forces with historians in the long struggle for National Archives independence from the GSA. In that era, many of the fundamental archival problems that concern archivists and historians today (declassification, electronic records, space, and facilities, for example) took a backseat to the overriding issue of independence. Consequently, although the unifying issue of independence provided the appearance of unanimity, there were key archival problems on which many professionals disagreed strongly with the Archives' actions. Many of these surfaced after NARA's 1984 independence from the GSA.

In the postindependence era, a primary focus of archival/NARA relations has been on the often divisive issue of who should be the archivist of the United States. In a sense, the die was cast by the first appointment in 1985/1986 when the leading nominee of the Reagan administration was John Agresto, a political scientist and protégé of conservative luminary William Bennett. Archivists and historians readily came to agreement in opposing the nomination of someone who lacked archival and historical background and carried obvious political if not ideological affiliations in exactly the way we had all hoped would be overcome through the establishment of independence for the archives. In the end, the coalition against Agresto managed to stall the nomination long enough that it died. In his stead, another Republican favorite, Don Wilson, emerged as a viable candidate. While in retrospect we can remember misgivings about the appointment, Wilson had undeniable archival and historical credentials through his administration at the Ford and Eisenhower libraries.

After Wilson's appointment, increased discomfort developed between the archival profession and the National Archives. On the one hand, the rapidly maturing profession that had developed and strengthened independent of NARA included many specialists who took issue with several NARA policies on technical questions such as electronic records, preservation standards, user services, and educational requirements. On the other hand, several archivists inside and outside of NARA worried about the lack of strategic planning within the agency and the inability of the agency to make headway in appropriations. The worst fears of archivists and historians seemed to be realized in the early 1990s when NARA leadership took a position on the nature of electronic records in the politically-tinged PROF's case. While the profession had earlier divided on whether to take a specific position regarding Oliver North's records, by 1992 there developed the strong sense among many archivists that NARA's position on the status of North's e-mail undermined the concept of government records and was theoretically a backward step for electronic records issues. Thus, many non-NARA archivists were pleased by Judge Charles Richey's decisions against Wilson and the archives' position on e-mail.2

The immediate circumstances of Wilson's 1993 departure, shortly after signing a special memorandum about the status of Bush presidential material, focused the archival profession's concerns about the political independence it wanted to see in future appointments of the archivist of the United States, especially in regard to presidential politics. In this context, one can appreciate the zeal and concern with which archivists observed the protracted process the Clinton administration followed for appointing a successor to Wilson. From the previous Agresto experience we learned that we needed to be prepared to speak up early in opposition to candidates we believed lacked the historical and archival background for the position or who appeared to be under consideration primarily because of political contacts. Thus, we moved quickly to oppose Robert Hardesty, who advanced his case in 1993/1994. We also understood the importance of having viable alternative candidates and thus spent time interviewing several individuals.

As with the Hardesty candidacy, it is not surprising that archivists came to oppose the nomination of John Carlin. While we appreciated the value that could come from an experienced public administrator and a person well-skilled in advocacy, we were very concerned with the precedent-setting character of the political context out of which the nomination seemed to emerge. We feared that by moving away from a primary emphasis on professional and historical credentials, even in the case of a candidate with other obvious merits, we would be opening the door for future U.S. presidents to appoint candidates who might have more connections and fewer qualifications than we saw in 1995.3

The basis for our position still seems philosophically and professionally sound as well as consistent with past positions. However, as it turns out, the National Archives under John Carlin has made significant progress on many issues important to archivists, and thus to historians as well. Strategic planning has become a fact of life at the agency and a critical tool for dealing with major administrative issues. Policies on areas that greatly troubled archivists, such as electronic records, have been reversed. Above all, NARA has actively sought to create and maintain a dialogue with the profession on important issues. Although areas of contention or potential strife still exist, such as space planning, serious and genuine consultation has been the cornerstone of discussion. Considering the unabashed opposition archivists presented to Carlin's nomination, his personal readiness to work with us has been commendable and encouraging.

With this overview of archivists/NARA relations, we can examine policy issues currently facing the National Archives as illustrations of the principles at stake.

Space Planning: Archivists understand the critical space and facility issues facing the National Archives at the Washington and regional facilities. Except for Archives II, NARA lacks archival quality space and sufficient quantities of space. The regional system, although effective at reaching researchers in several urban areas, provides only partial coverage while also incorporating some rather notable locational anomalies. Most critical are the overall shortage of space in regional facilities and the very poor environmental conditions. In the context of financial management issues, archivists are pleased that a reassessment of the space issue has begun. We applaud the driving principle that the status quo is unacceptable and that reconfigurations might be necessary to obtain sufficient quality space for records while also utilizing technology to expand accessibility for users. We appreciate the political sensitivity of such a study, and we applaud the careful efforts that have been made to hold public hearings throughout the country. However, we would also like to emphasize principles that should guide the process in the next stages: any recommendations that emerge should be based on a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the facilities both on their own terms and in relation to other parts of the National Archives system, including comparisons to Archives I and II and the presidential libraries. Furthermore, a report of the space planning group covering findings to date and outlining options for facilities and sites should be produced as soon as feasible.

Standards: Archivists are pleased to learn of progress in developing standards for the housing of temporary records, and we look forward to being able to view and comment on draft standards. This is a classic example of where sound work on NARA problems can have important exemplary benefits for the profession as a whole, and we hope these standards will strengthen the hand of all archivists in working to improve environmental conditions in their own institutions.

Defense Department Standard: Archivists have been quite hopeful about the work of NARA with the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop standards for records management software applications, which recently resulted in DOD Standard 5015.2 (Design Criteria for Electronic Records Management Software Applications). We have not had a chance to look at these criteria yet, but we appreciate the importance of developing guidelines that archivists can present to systems personnel so that effective records management options can be developed for important electronic systems. This long overdue work promises to be of benefit to archivists throughout the country. Furthermore, we anxiously anticipate the next step of operational guidelines and baseline requirements for an electronic records management system.

General Records Schedule 20—Electronic Records: There have been many encouraging developments as a result of the Public Citizen lawsuit against the National Archives to block the implementation of GRS-20, which had tried to provide a generalized disposal authorization for electronic records. SAA rightly refused to sign on to this 1997 suit because of conceptual problems in the suit which it voiced along with criticisms of GRS-20.4 We are most encouraged by the approach taken by the archives in response to the suit, and even more, the substance of the recommendations of the Electronic Records Working Group (ERWG).5 ERWG's recommendations are quite consistent with the SAA's position on GRS-20 and especially gratifying in their focus on the necessity of using specific records schedules to cover program records and on avoiding the scheduling of records by media.

At the same time, we want to emphasize that it should be archivists' prerogative to decide how and when to reformat records. We understand the added value that electronic records have when kept in their original form, but we realize that reformatting is sometimes a necessary step for their professional management. In relation to GRS-20, we would also like to commend NARA for making a serious effort to incorporate outsiders in the working group to ensure that it would benefit from the critical thinking of leading specialists in the field—a fact that reflects NARA's recognition of the maturing of the profession. We hope that this same collaboration will extend to the follow-on group that is to be appointed—we hope at an early date.

National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC): Archivists throughout the country continue to bemoan the low level of funding available for critical records projects. Recent increases in funding for NHPRC have been encouraging, although with continued emphasis on the needs of the documentary edition projects, support of records projects has remained at a low level. We are particularly disappointed by the fact that more money has not been made available for electronic records projects. The experience of ERWG clearly shows that electronic records issues are so complex that solutions must be developed outside the federal government as well as inside. NHRPC is virtually the only federal source of funds for research and development on technical archival issues.

Declassification: Archivists are aware of the enormous problems that researchers face when dealing with records that have been classified for national security purposes, and we understand that the core of the problem lies not at the National Archives but in the agencies that establish the original classification. For several decades, archivists have regretted the enormous resources required to administer the declassification of older federal records. Although declassification is not inherently an archival function, it is compatible with the core archival mission of supporting accountable government. For these reasons, archivists were pleased with President Clinton's 1995 Executive Order 12958, which called for accelerated declassification through "bulk declassification." We are particularly proud of the National Archives' role in the declassification of nearly 300 million documents since the existence of the executive order.6 In late 1998, archivists spoke out strongly against the original provisions of the Kyl Amendment, which sought to reinstate page-by-page declassification for 25-year old records to protect Department of Energy (DOE) information. We are pleased with the compromise, which calls for NARA and DOE to develop a plan to prevent inadvertent release of records containing restricted data through automatic declassification. We are, however, concerned lest the conservative tendencies of DOE prevail over archival and historical interests in following the spirit of the executive order for declassifying historically valuable records.

Education and Professional Credentials: As the archival profession has grown in the past three decades, it has come to be dominated by archivists trained in university-based programs of archival studies, library science, and public history. It has increasingly attempted to take control over the criteria used by employers to hire archivists, notably through a certification program and emphasis on standards for graduate archival education programs. In the process, many archivists have grumbled about NARA's distance from these developments. In particular, they have been concerned that the archetypical path is for NARA to appoint archivists as entering professionals based on advanced graduate training in American history but little archival experience or training. In general, there has not been an open door for archivists from other institutions to come to work for NARA or vice versa. We appreciate that much of the reason for these conditions stems from federal personnel management regulations and conditions. We are encouraged by the recent word we have heard that NARA staff are beginning to address what the federal qualifications should be for the archivist, a process that could result in revisions to the federal personnel handbook. NARA should find a means to consult with the archival profession, especially SAA and the Academy of Certified Archivists before the federal manual is revised. We also believe that serious thought should be given to allowing the internal education program to become superseded by external archival educational programs. There is too much archival talent inside and outside of NARA not to encourage strong interchange of professional personnel.

In sum, several recent developments at NARA promise to benefit the archival profession at large. We are particularly encouraged by the increased collaboration and we hope that under John Carlin's leadership this will continue and expand. At the same time, we understand the tendency of historians and archivists to be ready to criticize NARA on archival and information policy issues. We believe, however, that more will be gained by trying to channel these critical perspectives into collaboration through early consultation of the archives with the professions and the professions with the archives.

My final word is a cautionary one for the National Archives, inspired by the observations of a colleague. NARA is an important and accomplished public institution, but it no longer needs to exist as a self-sustaining archival enterprise, as it did 30 to 60 years ago. We will all benefit by greater integration of the archives with the profession. NARA should take advantage of the overall strength of archival programs throughout the county—programs which educate archivists and conduct research on fundamental archival issues faced by all of us who care about maintaining an accountable record of our government and the rich historical heritage of our society. 

—William J. Maher teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


1. For an excellent overview of the development of the profession and the SAA, see J. Frank Cook, "The Blessings of Providence on an Association of Archivists," American Archivist 46 (fall 1983): 374–99.

2. Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President, 821 F. Supp 761 (D.D.C. 1993). For a contemporary overview of the case see David Bearman, "The Implications of Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President for the Archival Management of Electronic Records," American Archivist 56:4 (1993), 674-89.

3. The many press articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chronicle of Higher Education provide the details of the Hardesty and Carlin nominations. For example see, "Former Governor Is Nominated to be Archivist over Objections of Academic Groups," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 19, 1995.

4. Society of American Archivists, "Archival Issues Raised by Litigation Challenging General Records Schedule 20," May 3, 1997, resolutions/grs20.html.

5. Electronic Records Working Group, "Report to the Archivist of the United States," September 14, 1998,